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  • Writer's pictureJesse Dillon

The Unexpected Journey: The battle after the battle with cancer - by Jesse Dillon

Jesse Dillon, a stage 4B Squamous Cell Carcinoma survivor, talks about the importance of early detection for Oral, Head, and Neck cancer.

Jesse Dillon is a stage 4B Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Tonsil survivor, and a dedicated patient advocate, championing increased awareness and the importance of early detection.  

Stage 4B squamous cell carcinoma echoed in my ears

Not too long ago, I was asked by the team at The After Cancer to provide a testimonial of my battle with Head and Neck cancer, specifically Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Tonsil.

This month, they asked me to write another guest blog for Head and Neck Cancer Awareness month which happens every April, and I enthusiastically agreed, because before I was diagnosed in 2019, I was painfully unaware of what Head and Neck cancer was.

As I thought about what I wanted to share with the world, my thoughts went back to the last time I met with my oncologist in August of last year, but before I go there, let me recap my story for those of you who are not familiar.

In the late summer of 2019, I started having a sore throat and an earache, symptoms that I mistook as a cold or really bad allergies. However, as weeks passed, the sore throat persisted, swallowing became a challenge, and a relentless ear pain set in. After about 8 weeks of enduring the pain, I decided to see my doctor.

After numerous doctor visits and tests, the words "stage 4B squamous cell carcinoma" echoed in my ears.

The 'C' word carried a weight that seemed to compress time itself.

The gravity of the situation was overwhelming, and the 'C' word carried a weight that seemed to compress time itself. The diagnosis process was a whirlwind, that I still don’t remember at all with the exception of a few fuzzy details that pop into my head from time to time. There are many decisions that have to be made and appointments that need to be set. It’s a chaotic time that no matter how much you brace yourself, there is no way to prepare for.

My treatment regimen was aggressive: 35 radiation treatments and three rounds of cisplatin chemotherapy.

Each session more painful than the last.

Each day my body growing weaker.

By February 2021, I emerged on the other side with an official diagnosis: no evidence of disease.

Little did I know, the worst was yet to come.

Now, after almost 5 years post diagnosis and 3 years post treatment, neuropathy, cervical dystonia, hearing loss, and dry mouth have made their way into my daily life. Daily reminders of the battle I endured.

But even with debilitating headaches and rotting teeth caused by massive doses of radiation, I was feeling pretty vindicated.

I had beat cancer.

Not IF but WHEN cancer will return

Then last August, I was talking to my oncologist and going through the process of transitioning from being in active surveillance with his team to preventative screening with my Primary Care Physician, he said something that has stuck with me even more than the day that he told me that I had cancer.

He told me that it wasn’t a question of IF my cancer would return, but rather WHEN it will return.

My cancer was brought on by an HPV infection that I probably picked up in my teenage years. While most people will never have any complications from an HPV infection, while others will develop cancer at some point in their life and we aren’t sure why.

I love my oncologist. I owe that man my life. It was his open and honest approach to my treatment that helped me get to NED, and although the news of the potential return of my cancer was extremely tough to hear, I appreciated his honesty so I could remain vigilant and listen to my body.

My mission to help save anyone else from having to endure what I have

I have now made it my mission to help save anyone else from having to endure what I have had to. I help people to identify the symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer to help save lives.

My journey underscores the critical importance of recognizing the signs of head and neck cancer.

Early detection can mean the difference between life and death, and understanding these symptoms can lead to timely and effective treatment.

A self-examination is easy and should be done at least every 3 months.

Step 1: Check the Neck for Lumps

  • Use your hands to palpate your neck.

  • Feel for any lumps or swollen lymph nodes.

Step 2: Inspect the Lips and Cheeks

  • Pull your upper lip up and your lower lip down to check for sores or color changes.

  • Use your fingers to feel the inside of your mouth for lumps or abnormalities.

Step 3: Examine the Gums

  • Gently bite down and look at your gums for any sores or unusual colorations.

  • Feel around the gums for any bumps or irregularities.

Step 4: Open Mouth and Look Inside

  • Stick out your tongue and check the top, bottom, and sides for any swellings or ulcers.

  • Look at the back of your throat, the roof of your mouth, and under the tongue using a flashlight and mirror⁴.

Additional Tips:

  • Compare one side to the other for symmetry.

  • Look for red or white patches, lumps, or bumps that are different on one side compared to the other.

If you discover any abnormalities that persist for more than two weeks or get larger, contact your healthcare provider or dentist⁴.

Remember, this self-exam should be done regularly, and any persistent changes should be evaluated by a professional. It's an important habit that can lead to early detection and treatment.

I demo the exam here:

Here are the Symptoms to look out for:

  • Persistent Cough: A cough that doesn't go away may be a sign of throat cancer.

  • Changes in Voice: Hoarseness or not speaking clearly can be a symptom.

  • Difficulty Swallowing: This may extend to breathing difficulties in more severe cases.

  • Ear Pain: Persistent pain in the ear can be associated with head and neck cancers.

  • Lumps or Sores: A lump in the throat or a sore that doesn't heal should be checked.

  • Sore Throat: A sore throat that persists could be a warning sign.

  • Weight Loss: Unexplained weight loss can sometimes be associated with cancer.

These symptoms can also be caused by other, less serious conditions, but it's important to consult a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis if you experience any of them.

In addition to these symptoms, certain factors can increase the risk of developing head and neck cancer, such as tobacco use (both smoking and chewing), alcohol abuse, infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and a family history of cancer.

If you're experiencing any of these symptoms or have risk factors, it's essential to seek medical advice.

Early intervention is key to managing and treating head and neck cancer effectively.


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